What Does Your Pancreas Do And Can You Live Without It?
The pancreas plays a significant role in our blood sugar regulation and digestion, making it a vital organ in the human body. However, if it is affected by cancer or cysts, a doctor may recommend removing the pancreas.
The main question a person will likely have when confronted with this situation is, “Can I live with only a part of my pancreas or no pancreas at all?” Given this organ’s essential role, it is certainly a valid question to have.
The short answer is, “Yes, you can survive without a pancreas.” But how does the removal of this organ impact the human body? Let us shed more details on the role of the pancreas and what to expect if it is removed from our body.
What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas is a leaf-shaped gland located between the stomach and spine. Essentially, the pancreas has two main parts – the exocrine and the endocrine.
The endocrine pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. This process is vital to the human body as our blood sugar levels can become abnormally high if our body does not produce this chemical to regulate our blood glucose. Without insulin to aid our body in using glucose as fuel for energy, we will suffer from malnutrition, leading to more severe health issues down the line.
Conversely, the exocrine pancreas produces digestive enzymes that aid the body’s digestion and absorption of meals. These enzymes are essential to help us absorb nutrients, providing our body with the material it needs for our daily functions. Without the exocrine pancreas, everything we consume will pass straight through our intestines, resulting in steatorrhea.
When will a doctor recommend removing the pancreas?
There are several situations where a doctor may recommend having a person’s pancreas removed:
1. Pancreatic cancer
Despite the reasonable pancreatic cancer treatment cost in Singapore, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with just 7 per cent of patients living longer than 5 years following their diagnosis. The main reason behind the disease’s high mortality rate is the difficulty in detecting the illness in its early stage, allowing the cancerous cells to spread to other organs.
2. Chronic pancreatitis
Chronic pancreatitis is a recurring inflammation of the pancreas, and there are even specific forms of this disease that are hereditary. Furthermore, this disease is extremely painful and possibly fatal.
Doctors will typically prescribe a treatment plan for chronic pancreatitis in the hopes of reducing the symptoms of the illness. However, if treatment fails or the pancreas is severely damaged, the doctor will recommend partial or complete removal of the organ.
3. Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm
Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN) are precancerous tumours that develop in the ducts of the pancreas. If these tumours are left untreated, they may develop into cancer. In such a scenario, the doctor will recommend removing a portion or the entire pancreas to prevent the tumours from becoming cancerous.
The aftermath of pancreatic surgery
In most situations, only a portion of the pancreas will be removed during surgery. Given sufficient time, the patient’s body will acclimate to the loss of the removed pancreas. Studies have even shown that more than 60% of the time, the patient does not notice any differences in their endocrine or exocrine pancreas.
However, on certain occasions, the patient may develop diabetes, or if they have pre-existing diabetes, their condition may worsen. They may also encounter digestion issues – due to the loss of the exocrine pancreas. In both situations, careful monitoring and treatment will be required.
If the total removal of the pancreas is necessary, careful medical treatments by a specialist, such as replacement of insulin and digestive enzymes, are required to ensure there are no further complications after surgery. And with proper medications, the patient can resume normal function and achieve a good quality of life.
Living a normal life without a pancreas requires careful monitoring and lifelong treatment. While there have been no long-term studies on the impact of losing an entire pancreas, experience has shown that patients proceed to have a normal life expectancy, albeit requiring careful medical supervision.